What Jessa Crispin’s Bracing New Book Gets Wrong About Feminism and Pop Culture

At 151 pages, Jessa Crispin’s new book, Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, is small but mighty, a bracing, contradictory volume full of fury. It’s a rousing call for unity that’s not afraid to alienate, at once breezy and foreboding. It’s a radical text written in accessible, entertaining prose, slipped nonchalantly into the mainstream.

Crispin’s thesis is that American women have abandoned the true cause of feminism for the comforts of fitting in — that we’ve become victims not just of the patriarchy or global capitalism, but of “the refusal to experience the discomfort of real change.” Signing a petition or wearing a T-shirt isn’t going to cut it. Feminism, Crispin wryly argues in her introduction, has become “a decade-long conversation about which television show is a good television show and which television show is a bad television show.”

It’s not the only time Crispin writes disparagingly of pop culture’s role in contemporary feminist discourse. Movies and TV shows are lumped into her larger critique of a feminism that is so focused on “labels and identity,” it’s lost sight of the goal of equality. “Women are still taking pole-dancing classes, saying it is good exercise,” Crispin writes. “They are still giving their money and attention to musicians who tell them they are worthless pieces of ass, now open your mouth bitch and take my dick.” Tonally, the book is the textual equivalent of an M.I.A. music video.

It’s the kind of rhetoric that makes for an effective, rousing call to action, even if it’s at odds with the kind of unromantic, swagger-less work of social change that Crispin, a former Planned Parenthood staffer, advocates. But the irony of her dismissal of “pop culture feminism,” as it were, is that her book is such a prime example of it: accessible, entertaining, and cathartic in its expression of an often unspoken rage.

Early in the book, Crispin takes issue with women who call themselves feminists but also “consume misogynist culture” and fawn over “romantic narratives in movies and television.” This generalized snarking about movies and television doesn’t just ignore their power to subvert those narratives. (Has Crispin turned on the TV in the past decade?) Throughout the book, there’s no recognition of the fact that pop culture can be subversive in ways that aren’t as blunt as Crispin might like; that sometimes ideas reach people in strange and inexplicable ways.

Crispin’s irreverence can verge on dismissive, as when she briefly sums up “outrage culture” and the people who complain about “political correctness gone mad” and then quickly declares, “I don’t really care about any of that.” She’s right when she points out, “Revenge has become an official part of feminist policy” and later, that “safety for women means strict prison sentencing for men, prioritizing revenge over rehabilitation.” Pop culture has played a definite role in the primacy of the revenge narrative in feminist discourse, from Showgirls to Death Proof. But Crispin doesn’t mention this, presumably because she doesn’t really care about any of that.

Later, though, she lets slip an acknowledgment of the power of narrative in a chapter titled “Men Are Not Our Problem.” She mentions the many books and movies in which a woman proves her worth “by having all of the male characters fall in love with her,” and the common depiction of the “female loner” as basically identical to her male counterpart. “The stories we tell,” she writes, “reveal what it is we value.”

Crispin, who founded and ran the literary website BookSlut from 2002 to 2016, is obviously well-versed in the history of feminist discourse; her book is peppered with names like Andrea Dworkin, Catherine McKinnon, Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millett, Valerie Solanas, and Germaine Greer. But she doesn’t go much further beyond naming names, mostly to admonish young feminists’ betrayal of these “scary women”: “In contrast to the blogs and books that reassure readers that feminism can be ‘sexy,’ here stands Andrea Dworkin, obese, frizzy-haired, without even a hint of lip gloss.”

And yet, despite her celebration of the homely Dworkin and her scorn for the romance genre, the story Crispin wants to tell is deeply romantic. Her book reassures women that feminism can be sexy, not in a rose-petals-on-silk-sheets kind of way, but a storming-the-barricades kind of way. “We are at the city’s walls,” she writes, “but we have also infiltrated the center.” In her final chapter, she urges women to “stop reacting to the moving parts” and “lay your attack at the machinery itself” — a line that sounds real cool but is in all practical terms meaningless. Crispin gives the book an ominous introduction with an epigraph by the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran: “A book should open old wounds, even inflict new ones. A book should be a danger.” You can almost picture storm clouds gathering over the Gotham City skyline like the opening of a Christopher Nolan Batman movie.

As Crispin herself acknowledges, “It is always easier to find your sense of value by demeaning another’s value.” Crispin may mock pop culture and the debates about gender and feminism that it often generates, but for many women, movies and TV shows and books were our way into these debates in the first place. No one pushed Shulamith Firestone’s books into my hands growing up, but I watched a lot of TV, and I have a brain. I figured out a lot about how our society views women by watching movies and TV shows. In our increasingly media-saturated age, that’s got to be true for even more young women and girls today.

“We have to imagine something before we can build the infrastructure that will allow it to exist,” Crispin insists. But that’s exactly where pop culture comes in —it’s not the infrastructure, but the imagination. If there’s a problem with the intersection of feminism and pop culture today, it’s in our reluctance to make that distinction. The instinct to attack an individual movie or actor or show for “perpetuating the problem” of misogyny sidesteps the fact that it’s not the job of a TV show to make women’s lives better. If we’ve failed in our embrace of “pop culture feminism,” it’s in failing to making the connection between what we see on TV and what we can do when we turn it off.

Crispin’s manifesto may be a more direct call to action than a TV show. But it holds a similar place in the debate about feminism today. As critics have pointed out, Why I Am Not a Feminist offers few concrete suggestions to the challenges it poses. But the book is an extremely effective piece of writing nonetheless, a blueprint for women who care about equal rights for all women, and really, all humans. “I have more questions than answers,” Crispin writes toward the end. We all have to start somewhere.